Soon Ian is “doing [Arthur’s] laundry, cleaning up his flat, feeding Gustave, balancing his books, pacifying his ex-wives, replenishing his liquor supply, traveling to ungodly destinations, stalling his publishers and feigning enthusiasm whenever he read aloud the poems of W.H. Auden” (“But then again, I was raised Catholic,” Ian muses, “and we do love to suffer”).
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In the pages that follow, this Quixotic pair manage to fall into—and extricate themselves from—half a dozen adventures involving wheedling publishers, loathsome rival journalists, buxom young ladies, a grotesquely obese legendary writer and some very funny terrorists. Arthur, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, careens from one disaster to the next with the unshakable aplomb of a deadline-hound. Ian is far more flappable, a newcomer to Arthur’s world of high-profile writing and energetic ribaldry. Their comic teaming makes Magpie a truly memorable debut, and here Finch talks to us about going indie, the changing face of journalism and the book’s cinematic influences.
Magpie reached Kirkus as a spiral-bound galley copy—care to share some of your adventures on the path to publication?
I decided to take the self-publishing route for the lack of any other options. In a lot of ways, a first-time writer is like a band that nobody’s heard yet. You have to get out there a play a few small venues to build your fan base. You never know who might be in the crowd. I enjoyed every step of the process, and if I have to do it again, I'll know exactly what needs to be done.
It’s been well-attested by everybody from Ben Jonson to Tolstoy that writing comedy is far more difficult than writing tragedy. The breakneck pace of Magpie never seems to relent—and yet you seem to have survived the process. Any tips?
The pacing of the novel was intentional, because it fits the characters and the world they inhabit—especially in today’s world, where information is coming at you so fast and our attention spans are shrinking by the minute. I think Arthur and Ian are merely trying to keep up with the rest of the world, which is spinning like a top.
The character of Magpie himself—Falstaffian, globe-trotting, larger-than-life—is constantly butting up against limitations in the novel. The world seems to have shrunk around him; he seems like a relic of a lost age of celebrity journalism. It certainly adds to the comedy, but still, is this partially a critique on your part? Is Magpie a dream of yours, or a cautionary tale?
Arthur is definitely an anachronism. There are bits and pieces of a lot of famous writers and journalists there—Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, Kenneth Tynan, Tom Wolfe, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Koestler and George Orwell immediately spring to mind. And like Falstaff, there’s a tragedy there as well. Arthur’s the last of dying breed of journalists, those hard-drinking, chain-smoking wordsmiths who are now being replaced by news conglomerates and the Internet. If there’s a constant of the Information Age, it’s the disappearance of personality, and unfortunately I think that’s here to stay. However, this is not to say these writers can’t exist again.
The book seems to have as many cinematic antecedents as literary ones—everything from His Girl Friday to My Favorite Year. Did the story go through many forms before the one we see?
The cinematic allusions are no accident, and for a time I did envision the Magpie series as a film or possibly a television series. That is, until I finally got a sense of the scope of it and how difficult it would be to try to film some of the novel’s happenings—Kubrick’s famous adage of “If you can think it, you can film it” doesn’t really apply with this book. Certainly Withnail and I had a big influence on the novel, as did films by the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges. That said, if somebody did want to fashion a film out of Magpie, I don’t think I’d said no. There’s certainly a lot there for actors to chew on, and if put into the right hands, it could really take on a life of its own.
Any reader coming to the end of Magpie and reading that our heroes’ adventures will continue must perforce clap hands for sheer joy—any progress reports on that sequel?
I'll be starting on the second book in about another week and all I'll say is that it will cover a special assignment in the